We Wanted a World Leader. We Saw Only a US President

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The Guardian/UK

We Wanted a World Leader. We Saw Only a US President

This is hard. It's hard because we so need to believe that Obama is about change, that he's wise, that he's good, that he has the interests of the world – rather than just the interests of the United States – at heart.

The 3,500 invited guests were told they'd have to be in their places by 10.30. But Obama would speak at one. An odd time for everyone, it would seem: for us in Cairo, where the cool of the evening is the preferred time for any event, and for people in America, who wouldn't yet have woken up. I dress with my eye on the television screen: the loop of Obama touching cheeks with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, his hand resting for a companionable minute on the old monarch's arm. Just before I leave the house I glimpse the prancing horses that make up part of Obama's procession into Cairo.

The Egyptian state is doing pomp, and relieved (because of the security lockdown) of traffic and noise Cairo is playing along: the morning light is clear and free of dust, the flame trees are magnificent with their crowns of red massed flowers.

In the great Festival Hall under the dome of Cairo University we are a good-humoured crowd, amusing ourselves during our three-hour wait by applauding the mic checks and housekeeping announcements of the Egyptian staff. Then something interesting happens: an American strides on to the stage, brusque and marine-like in his efficiency, he marches through a prolonged mic check: "One, two, three, mic check, from Cairo, Egypt, one, two …" When he's finished the tiny patter of hesitant applause dies out very quickly. In a ­couple of minutes he's back. "Mic check," he announces – then grins: "Last time, I promise." The crowd roars its approval, applauds him.

They even applaud Hilary Clinton as she beams in through a side door. There are a lot of empty seats: the ­security arrangements and the ­promise of the long wait have kept people away. But then Obama comes in, and we're on our feet: waving, ­cheering, ­clapping. And that, really, is the ­highlight of the occasion.

Obama did what many of us hoped he would not do: he accorded faith a central position in the relationship between our different parts of the world: rather than human beings with different histories and different political interests and ambitions – and despite a quick acknowledgment of colonialism – we were essentially people of different faiths who would now make nice with each other. And such is our beleaguered state of mind here in this part of the world that every time he quoted the Qur'an, he was applauded. But then again, it seemed that it was the same 200 or so people who were putting their hands together – to less effect each time.

"Extremism" was top of the agenda, even though al-Qaida, once so modern and cutting edge, is now tired and irrelevant. But it was prodded out of its stall again as justification for American operations in Afghanistan. We were reminded of the 3,000 people killed in New York – people who had done no harm to anyone. And every person listening east of Rome and many west of it would have been thinking "and what about the million Iraqis, what about the Afghanis, what about …" And ­nothing about non-Muslim extremism, about the 40 million American Christian Zionists anticipating the Rapture with glee, or the Israeli settlers who in Hebron take your photo and upload it to God to fast-lane you to hell.

Obama's speech was a lawyerly speech, a clever speech. It certainly departed from the Bush discourse, but how far away from the policies of the last eight years are the sources it springs from? We still can only wait and see.  

The biggest applause he got was when he said that all US troops would be out of Iraq by 2012, and when he repeated his position on the Israeli settlements. He's been brave on the settlements, and of course we're all grateful for every step in the direction of halting the dispossession of the Palestinians. But it also needs to be remembered that stopping the settlements has been part of the official position of every American administration; what's required is the implementation of that position by cutting off the funding for the settlements and closing the tax loophole that allows private American organisations to fund them.

Around the pedestal carrying the Eternal Flame of Knowledge outside the university, the American activist group Code Pink carried banners that said "Obama: Stop funding Israeli war crimes". They came out of Gaza on Wednesday carrying a letter from Hamas to the American president, and they were at pains to  point out that Hamas chose an American feminist group to carry their letter. I don't know if they managed to deliver it.

There is a difference between believing that ultimately the interests of the inhabitants of the planet are genuinely interconnected and believing that the interests of the world can be made to seem compatible with America's. Obama has said that America should have not only the power but the moral standing to lead the world. Today we waited for him to demonstrate that moral standing and assume the leadership of the world. He did not; he remained the President of the United States.

Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif's new book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution is published by Bloomsbury in January, 2012. Her novel The Map of Love was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize.

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